At a time when oxidized statues of monarchs are being splattered with red paint or toppled entirely, following the grim discoveries of unmarked graves at former residential schools, the Queen’s living, breathing representative in Canada will, for the first time in history, be an Indigenous woman.
It’s about time.
Inuk leader Mary Simon will be Canada’s next governor general, the latest in a long list of accomplishments for the veteran advocate, diplomat and negotiator. This isn’t Ms. Simon’s only historic first; in 1994, she became the first Inuk to hold an ambassadorial position when she was appointed ambassador for circumpolar affairs, a position she held until 2003.
Ms. Simon has been involved in history-making negotiations, including those leading to the landmark James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement in 1975 and the 1982 patriation of the Canadian Constitution. And she’s been on the radar for the vice-regal post for a decade, having first made the shortlist for governor general back in 2010.
Put another way, she is right person for the role, at the right time.
"I can confidently say that my appointment is a historic and inspirational moment for Canada and an important step forward on the long path towards reconciliation," she said on Tuesday, after she introduced herself in Inuktitut.
She’s right. Having an Inuk woman in a high-level government role, and hearing Inuktitut in these kinds of official announcements, represents a powerful reclamation of space at a time of national reckoning. These are seats at the table that should be occupied by Indigenous people. The governor general doesn’t just represent the Crown; he or she also represents the country. And national symbols ought to look more like the nations they represent.
While some are quick to point out that the role is "largely ceremonial" — a euphemism for "doesn’t have much power" — the governor general does have important responsibilities, such as summoning, proroguing and dissolving Parliament, giving royal assent to parliamentary bills, and delivering the speech from the throne. Having the wrong person in this role can have deleterious effects, as was shown by the various scandals surrounding former governor general Julie Payette, who resigned after a scathing workplace review found she had created a toxic environment.
Despite her impressive CV, the fact Ms. Simon does not speak French has been a sticking point with some critics of her appointment, as it’s customary that the governor general be fluent in both official languages. It is important to note, however, that Ms. Simon is, in fact, bilingual — she speaks English and Inuktitut. Canada’s official languages are colonial languages; the erasure of Indigenous languages was one of the goals of residential schools.
There has been, at various points over the past few decades, talk of modernizing the role of governor general — a goal whose pursuit to date has involved simply installing someone younger. Ms. Simon’s appointment, however, offers a chance for visibility and education thanks to her perspectives and lived experience.
She has affected change in every other role she has assumed; there’s no reason to think she won’t in this one. She has the potential to help envision and build a Canada that more fully recognizes the value of Indigenous people, culture and language.
Talk about toppling colonial figures.